Counter Reformation

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Counter Reformation

Counter Reformation, 16th-century reformation that arose largely in answer to the Protestant Reformation; sometimes called the Catholic Reformation. Although the Roman Catholic reformers shared the Protestants' revulsion at the corrupt conditions in the church, there was present none of the tradition breaking that characterized Protestantism. The Counter Reformation was led by conservative forces whose aim was both to reform the church and to secure the its traditions against the innovations of Protestant theology and against the more liberalizing effects of the Renaissance.

Origins of the Counter Reformation

Since the time of St. Catherine of Siena (14th cent.) there had been a growing demand for reform—of the clergy, of Christian life, and of ecclesiastical administration. Probably the Great Schism did more than anything else to prevent change, for in its duration ecclesiastical politics preoccupied those who might have been busy with reform. In the 15th cent. the papacy was too weak to lead any movement, much less a drastic reform of the kind called for by Girolamo Savonarola. A key factor in the stagnation in Christendom was the general worldliness and negligence of the prelates who—with their kings and princes—really ran the church. Such was their power that in the only vigorous papal effort at reform of the century, the mission of Nicholas of Cusa in Germany (1451), the papal legate dared not touch the bishops. At the time the most publicized scandal was the immoral Renaissance papal court.

Of all the evils the papal scandal proved to be the easiest remedied, once it was attacked by Paul IV. Before he became pope, Paul was (as Cardinal Carafa), with St. Cajetan (1480–1547) and others, a member of a small reform party at Rome. The nucleus was a society of priests and laymen, the Oratory of Divine Love, founded (1497) at Genoa for charitable work and then extended as a spiritual movement in the Curia itself. The reformers in Rome were helped from abroad by men of the prestige of St. Thomas More, Erasmus, St. John Fisher, and Cardinal Jiménez.

However, the first major reform efforts failed; these were the Fifth Lateran Council (see Lateran Council, Fifth) and the election of Adrian VI, who died too soon to accomplish anything. In the next pontificate (Clement VII, 1523–34) the reform party worked on quietly, forming the core of resistance to Lutheranism; they founded the Theatines (1524) and the Capuchins (1525), religious orders to evangelize the common people. Meanwhile Protestantism expanded, and the sack of Rome (1527) convinced even the most complacent cardinals that political gambling was a danger to the church. The influence of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V weighed on the side of reform.

Phases of the Counter Reformation

In 1534, Paul III became pope, and St. Ignatius of Loyola and his friends took the vows that founded the Jesuits (see Jesus, Society of). Thus simultaneously (but quite independently) the reformers finally won the papacy, and the pope was provided with a resolute band of helpers. In 1545, after delay and miscarriage, the Council of Trent (see Trent, Council of) was convened by Paul III. This council (1545–47, 1551–52, 1562–63) was the central event of the Counter Reformation. The popes of the council were Paul III, Julius III, and Pius IV. The reign of Pius's predecessor, Paul IV, an interlude in the council, was devoted to the purge of the papal court; from Paul's work dates the quasi-monastic air that has ever since characterized the Vatican.

The end of the council (1563) opened the second period of the reformation, lasting until 1590, with the pontificates of St. Pius V, Gregory XIII, and Sixtus V. The work of the council was given effect. The chief evil in church life, simony in many forms, including the preaching of some indulgences, was uprooted. Worship was standardized; the law of the church and the government of the Holy See were reorganized; new educational requirements for parish priests were introduced and provided for (by diocesan seminaries); religious orders were reformed; and the life of the clergy was scrutinized. A new spirit began to breathe in the church, as seen in the work of St. Charles Borromeo. In the Papal States and in a few other lands the new Inquisition was extended.

A far-reaching local movement in the reformation was the Oratory (see Oratory, Congregation of the) of St. Philip Neri. Catholicism took the offensive in Europe, and the Jesuits and Capuchins helped win Austria, Poland, the S Netherlands, and parts of Germany, Hungary, and Bohemia back to the Roman Catholic Church. The Jesuits led in foreign missions; in America it was the spirit of the Counter Reformation that led the missionaries to work for the Native Americans, often in opposition to the secular authorities. Spanish religion was deepened by the Carmelite reforms of St. Theresa of Ávila and by St. John of the Cross.

In France the Counter Reformation took root later, after the accession and conversion to Catholicism of Henry IV; the great French figures were St. Francis de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul. In England the Counter Reformation took effect less in the restoration of the Roman Catholic Church under Queen Mary (although Cardinal Pole was a reformer) than in the mission of the Jesuits (1580), led by St. Edmund Campion and Robert Persons. Diverse figures showing effects of the Counter Reformation are Caesar Baronius, St. Robert Bellarmine, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Richard Crashaw, St. Francis Borgia, Robert Southwell, and Torquato Tasso.


See M. R. O'Connell, The Counter Reformation 1559–1610 (1974); J. C. Olin, Catholic Reform (1990).

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